Killing machine

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Although barely detectable in Fitzgerald's genial manner, he and his boss seem to share an ever-present sarcasm directed at the national and international--particularly the French--media who swoop down for big, controversial executions but rarely surface otherwise. "Karla Faye Tucker, her case was heard worldwide. But for the guy we executed the next night who was just as big or bigger a Christian, no one was there. It's ironic," Fitzgerald says.

"We are in a tremendous position to watch herd journalism," says Castlebury. "I guess we're a little like air-traffic controllers. It's going to be a heavy load tonight."

Asked about his reactions to executions, Fitzgerald winces but supplies an answer. "It always makes an impression on you," he says. He doesn't know exactly how many executions he's witnessed. "It's just something that I don't like to keep a score on," he says.

As for his opinion of the death penalty, Fitzgerald balks at giving it. "It's not germane to the story," he says. "I have never commented on how I feel publicly. If I come out and say I am for it and then I have to go every week and work with death-row inmates," he says, pausing and letting his listener fill in the blank. "If I say I am against it, I have Justice for All [a victims' rights group] to deal with. Do I have an opinion? Yeah, I have an opinion. But I'm not going to say."

Fitzgerald goes back to the death-row unit to prepare inmates for media visits. He says he wants to make sure they are civil enough to meet with the press. He has, with the warden's blessing, forbidden some of the condemned from engaging in the interview process.

"I'm not going to let that guy who cut the preacher up talk to anybody," says Fitzgerald, referring to a June 9 attack on volunteer minister William Paul Westbrook by Juan Soria, a 33-year-old inmate scheduled to die next month for the killing of a 17-year-old Arlington boy in 1985. "The inmate pulled the chaplain's arm into the cell and tied a sheet around the arm, and pulled the arm into the cell up to the elbow," Fitzgerald told Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk. "Then he took out two razor blades and started cutting."

Westbrook nearly lost his arm.

Fitzgerald has also barred Howard Guidry from talking to the press. Guidry, along with fellow death-row inmate Ponchai Wilkerson, armed himself with metal rods last February and took a guard hostage for 13 hours. The two demanded a moratorium on executions.

They let the hostage go when the warden agreed to grant them a meeting with death-row opponents.

A month later, as he was strapped to the death-chamber gurney, Wilkerson got in one last act of defiance. With his death moments away, Wilkerson spat out a handcuff key. Authorities have never figured out how he got his hands on it.

Fitzgerald also has inmates whom he recommends for interviews. Thomas Miller-El, a 49-year-old inmate who arrived on death row in 1986, is one of Fitzgerald's picks. "I would not say we have a friendship," says Fitzgerald of Miller-El, "but a relationship of a captor-captive-type. We joke around with each other, kid back and forth. It's pleasant. I don't know about his crime. I know he committed it in Dallas. It's all I know."

In November 1985, according to TDCJ's own Web site, a Dallas jury convicted Miller-El of murdering a 25-year-old clerk at the Holiday Inn South in Irving. Miller-El and his wife robbed the clerk, then tied him up in a closet and used a 9mm automatic handgun to shoot him.

Asked about Miller-El's appeal chances, Fitzgerald shakes his head. "He's been here a long time."

At the inside gate of the Terrell Unit, 12 reporters, photographers, and broadcast crew members are lined up with their bulky equipment.

One by one, they pass their driver's licenses through a slot in a window to the female guard inside. In return, they each get a two-inch red plastic visitor tag.

The group is ready to go in, but Fitzgerald wants to wait a little longer for Geraldo Rivera. As the group starts to get restless, one of Rivera's researchers enters the foyer, out of breath. "They are on their way. They are just stuffing cheeseburgers in their mouths."

Fitzgerald is not sympathetic. "Let's go ahead, I'm not going to wait for Geraldo. The hell with it."

Lining the pathway between the prison gatehouse and main building, rose bushes, marigolds, zinnias, and petunias are in spectacular full bloom. "You want to take a little time to smell the flowers," Fitzgerald jokes with ABC correspondent Mike Van Fremd.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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